Anglican Evangelicalism: The Limitations of Augustinian Theology

In a previous post, we discussed the problems of Anglo-Catholics in their walk to Rome.  We’ve spent a fair amount of time on that; now let’s look at the weakness of the other branch of orthodox Anglicanism, the evangelical wing.  Our contention is that Evangelical Anglicans need to take a hard look at their adherence to Augustinian-Reformed theology.  We will show that those who were at the start of the Church of England understood these limitations and enshrined them in the 39 Articles.

A quick overview of Reformed-Augustinian Theology

Augustine formulated his theology of grace and perseverance in response to the teachings of Pelagius, arguably the most influential Christian teacher to come out of Roman Britain.  Augustine’s insistence on predestination and the perseverance to eternal life that follows from that eliminated the need for human effort that Pelagius implied was necessary.

Augustine’s solution, based on a focus on Paul’s epistles,  was controversial at the time.  Ever since Marcion had used Paul’s writings to advance his idea that the God of the Old Testament and New weren’t one in the same, the church had shied away from rigourously applying Paul’s teachings.  Moreover the early church had always admitted the possibility of falling away after salvation, something that Augustine basically obviated with his emphasis on predestination.  So the Western church rocked on through the Middle Ages, Augustinian in name but not always in reality.

It was Luther who "closed the circle" by realising that, if absolute predestination were true, then we didn’t need the church as a gatekeeper to get us to heaven.  It only took an act of faith–an act which was induced by God–to respond to God’s justification of us.  Calvin gilded the lily by emphasising our total depravity and inability to reach God apart from his initiative.  Both understood that this election was unconditional.

Augustinian theology’s strong point is that it makes a clear distinction between those who are saved and those who are lost.  The weakness is that, because of its insistence on predestination, it blocks the necessity of a lot of Christian activity that the New Testament holds as important.  Spiritual growth is one of those.  Personal holiness is another, especially when we consider that the key to eternal life in a Lutheran context is a legal decision in heaven.  Missions is another, and this is why it took two centuries from what many consider the greatest event in Christian history–the Reformation–to the beginning of serious world missions.  Why bother with missions when everyone is already predestined one way or another?

Augustinian Theology and Early Anglicanism

Early Anglican history was a "tug-of-war" between those who wanted a more "Catholic" type of church and one who wanted a more "Reformed" one.  The 39 Articles are imbued with Augustinian-Reformed thinking (and, yes, we’re of the mind that, if you don’t accept the 39 Articles, you’re not a real Anglican.)  But then there’s Article XVI:

NOT every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

This article is a product of the experience of the early church.  Before Constantine, baptism was strictly for adults who made a profession of faith (those "of riper years," as the 1662 Prayer Book would say) and underwent a catechumenate, or period of instruction and repentance.  Committing serious sin after baptism resulted in serious penance or excommuniciation.  Constantine himself was aware of this: he and his spiritual advisor, Eusebius of Caesarea, had no problem with delaying his baptism until shortly before his death, to avoid those penalties.  As we said earlier, the ante-Nicene church (at least) had always allowed the possibility of falling away after baptism, a baptism which followed a conversion experience.

That having been said, Article XVI torpedoes a straight-up Augustinian-Reformed theological framework for the Anglican.  Any admission that one can lose one’s salvation for any reason once one is elect (and knows it, another feature of Lutheranism is the matter of assurance) breaks the whole Reformed paradigm.

It took a century and a half, but it was John Wesley who finally connected the dots on this issue with his decidedly Arminian view of election and his emphasis on sanctification as a subsequent work of the Holy Spirit.  But same emphasis had already been anticipated by John Jewel:

Besides, though we say we have no meed [reward] at all by our own works and deeds, but appoint all the means of our salvation to be in Christ alone, yet say we not that for this cause men ought to live loosely and dissolutely; nor that it is enough for a Christian to be baptized only and to believe; as though there were nothing else required at his hand. For true faith is lively and can in no wise be idle. Thus therefore teach we the people that God hath called us, not to follow riot and wantonness, but, as Paul saith, “unto good works to walk in them”; that God hath plucked us out “from the power of darkness, to serve the living God,” to cut away all the remnants of sin, and “to work our salvation in fear and trembling”; that it may appear how that the Spirit of sanctification is in our bodies and that Christ himself doth dwell in our hearts. (from An Apology of the Church of England.)

The Position of Modern Evangelicals

Modern Anglican Evangelicals recognise themselves as the heirs of the "Protestant" side of Anglicanism, and rightly so.  One reason why so many parishes and Episcopalians/Anglican people gravitate towards Anglo-Catholicism, however, is because most people of an Evangelical or Reformed bent don’t stay in an Anglican setting, but go elsewhere.  If Evangelical Anglicanism plans to make a serious impact on the world–especially in the West–it needs to understand its own unique spiritual heritage, one that is different from Reformed and Lutheran churches in more ways than just liturgically.  Some ways it could do this are as follows:

  1. Anglicanism needs to stop seeing itself as simply Reformed Christianity with a liturgy but as a serious attempt to return to the ante-Nicene church.  That would put its view of how people go to heaven in a more pre-Augustinian light.
  2. Anglicans need to understand sanctification and personal holiness as a dynamic process in the life of the Christian, one that motivates the believer to do and live as God expects him or her to do.  Episcopalians have for too long associated their church with its aesthetic appeal rather than on expectations of service and morality that God has on the believer.  On the other hand, many of Wesley’s heirs have come to see that the "sinless perfection" that is part of classical Wesleyanism is not a realistic objective in this life, which would eliminate one barrier that has been in place for many years.
  3. Evangelical Anglicanism would do itself many favours by weaning itself from infant baptism.  Adult (and that can be interpreted broadly), believers’ baptism is a statement that life with Christ starts with a decision, something that has no place in an Augustinian context.  A conscious decision–even one that requires the moving of God to validate–is a necessity in a world with so many distractions and detours.  The wording of the Articles is interesting on this point: "The baptism of young children is in any wise to be retained in the Church as most agreeable with the institution of Christ." (Article XXVII)

The issue of sanctification, however, begs discussion of the next step.  That step–the baptism in the Holy Spirit–in Anglicanism has been the province of the Charismatics, and we will discuss them in a subsequent post.

7 thoughts on “Anglican Evangelicalism: The Limitations of Augustinian Theology”

  1. I disagree with your point #3. One of the reasons I am becoming anglican is the issue of infant baptism. Anglicans are following the ancient practice. The adult only baptism view is an innovation of the 16th century. There is sufficient evidence that infant baptism was practiced from the tme of the apostles. The fact that is was never rejected by any church father or any theologian in the first 1500 yrs of the church gives it incredible support. It is ground on the biblical concept of children and the covenant. Infant baptism does not preclude the neeed of personal decision for Christ later on. On the contrary thAt is where confirmation comes into play.

    1. I don’t think the evidence for infant baptism as “practiced from the time of the apostles” is as univocal as you or other proponents of the idea think. I produced a more thorough defence of believers baptism here.

      An interesting counter to this is Cyril of Jerusalem’s lectures, a series about which I produced a while back. This was certainly not a project for infants. Infant baptism would have produced some serious consequences for the person who subsequently fell into major sin, but towards the end of the Roman Empire the church moved towards the penitential system we now have in the RCC, which also affected the role of baptism.

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